As a child I used to spend summers at my grandfather’s house in the Bayyada neighborhood of the ancient city center of Aleppo. Every Friday night, my grandfather, the old Sufi, would take me to the weekly dhikr ceremony at the famous Kaltawiyyah Mosque. From the early sixties until his death in the mid-seventies, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Nabhan was among the most important Sufi masters in the city, having built his own small Sufi empire on Kaltawiyyah Hill. The small hill had been a desolate, dilapidated place until the Aleppine politician and two-time prime minister of Syria, Maarouf al-Dawalibi, gave it to Al-Nabhan, who went on to become a spiritual authority for much of northern and eastern Syria and some parts of Iraq. Many chanters presided over the dhikr ceremonies in Kaltawiyyah at one time or another, but my favorite was Muhyi al-Din al-Ahmad, from the countryside east of Aleppo, with his distinct Euphrates accent and sad style of chanting and playing the daf, a style that had all but vanished among Aleppo’s chanters. When the ceremony had finished, a small group would gather in one of the side rooms of the mosque, where, sitting upright, they would perform their special chant, a rhythmic humming without words or instrumental accompaniment. They would carry on the rhythm with such force that, however much you might try, you could not come out from under its spell. Even today, after all this time, I can still hear that rhythm, reverberating in my head like the buzzing of a bee.
You could enter the mosque through one of two doors. The first entrance, Al-Muhammas Door, could be reached by way of a short set of stairs. To reach the second, you first had to pass through a long, dark room, which opened onto the courtyard of the mosque with its ablution fountain and the tall trees that lined the perimeter and where I would see children laughing and playing every time I visited.
The mosque reached its peak in the seventies, with Sheikh Abdul Qadir Issa at the helm, flanked by the great chanters Adib Al-Dayikh, Abu Al-Jud, Sabri Mudallal, and Hasan Haffar. But the chanter with the strongest connection to the place was undoubtedly Yasin Al-Allaf, who, in addition to having a beautiful voice, was also a jurist capable of delivering legal opinions and discussing the finer points of the prophetic tradition in its Sufi interpretation.
In the niche at the Karimiyyah Mosque, at Qansarin Gate, there hung on the wall a footprint and above it a spigot. When you went to get water, it would run into the footprint, before pouring into your glass. It was the footprint of the prophet, or so the people of Aleppo believe. The chanter Mundhir Sarmini used to perform regularly at Karmiyyah. Sarmini’s is perhaps best known for the fact that his recordings were being secretly passed between Islamist activists throughout the seventies and eighties. However, when you hear him perform Ibn Al-Farid’s poem Nazm Al-Suluk (trans: The Sufi Way), you forget all about politics and Islam and it is as if Nazim Al-Ghazali were standing before you.
Personally, I was never impressed with the Sufi masters’ religious teachings, which I felt amounted to little more than repetitive, incoherent, and overly simplistic pronouncements, but chanting was different: It was the glue that connected a group of followers to their Sheikh, who would in turn confer blessings upon each person in attendance. Every ceremony consisted of a familiar sequence of events: The Sheikh would utter a few words, then the participants would chant for a long time, sometimes in unison, sometimes individually, while the Sheikh moved between them. Sometimes he would close his eyes, and sometimes he would smile. He would move evenly between the sides of the circle so as to neglect no one, offering his graceful presence as an expression of his wisdom.
The beauty of religious chanting aside, it adheres to a strict set of religious and musical patterns and its joyousness can, at times, give way to boredom. A few have tried to move away from this rigidity, with varying degrees of success. At one time, Hasan Haffar began putting on secular performances with his teacher Sabri Mudallal, however he soon gave it up. The Abu Sha’r brothers performed pieces where the texts had been altered, or even replaced completely, but the commercial nature of their work made its artistic value appear dubious.
For Sufi brotherhoods, succession is an issue that carries a great deal of spiritual and religious importance. When Sheikh Abd Al-Qadir Issa, grand master of the Shadhiliyyah brotherhood, passed away in Turkish exile, no one was appointed to take his place. In truth, three or four successors were appointed (or maybe even more—I’m not sure): one in Turkey, in Ain-Tab, a second in Jordan, a third in Madinah, and a fourth and a fifth in Aleppo. As for the two Sheikhs in Aleppo, only intermittently did they attend the dhikr ceremonies led by Hasan Al-Haffar—the only universally admired chanter in the city—at the Sultaniyyah mosque, by the entrance to the fortress. Once, the Moroccan chanter Abd Al-Salam Al-Husni was invited to Aleppo, where, only minutes into his performance, the Sheikhs began to weep.
In the 1970s, Aleppo’s best chanters used to gather at Al-Rawda mosque. It was a golden era: They were singers in their prime and Aleppo was brimming with religious fervor. The mosque was a constant topic of conversation in the upscale Mukambu neighborhood, then the epicenter of religious gatherings and dhikr ceremonies in the city, where Sufi piety and the activism of the Muslim Brotherhood went hand in hand, and where, in the 1940s, Sabah Al-Fakhri, then just a boy, had delivered the call to prayer. In the 1970s, the quasi-official chanter of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abu Al-Jud (Mundhir Sarmnini), became the muezzin, followed by Adib Al-Dayikh in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Abu Al-Jud would return to occupy the position for the second time.
Perhaps this succession of muezzins reflects the changing mood in Aleppo: Sabah Al-Fakhri gave up religious chanting in favor of secular singing, only to end up attending gatherings of the Muslim Brotherhood, through Abu Al-Jud. Next came the nightmare of the 1980s along with Abu Al-Dayikh and his complete devotion to the voice itself, without any hint of religious intensity. Then, spurred on by the return of Abu Al-Jud, the beginning of the religious reawakening. It seems almost appropriate in keeping with the spirit of the era that someone like the elegant Shi’a chanter Bassim Al-Karbalai, or perhaps one of the Saudis who chant for Al-Nusra Front, should today be the muezzin. Whereas today, individual recordings made at Al-Rawda can still be found in various places on the internet, before, the complete collection could be found on the forum Ziryab. This is where I first heard Hasan Haffar and Sabri Mudallal chant and laugh together and Amin Al-Tirmidhi, his voice piercing and sorrowful, sing, “Me, the glass, the lover, and the wine, gathered by love, meanings that can only be grasped by someone whose thirst for love has been quenched.” However, the forum was shut down after Fairuz’s daughter, fearing that her mother’s rights as an artist were being violated, filed a copyright infringement claim against it. Azzan Al-Hadid, the owner of Hamid Bookstore, located in Aleppo’s Khan Al-Harir market and as far as I know the oldest bookstore in the city, was a publisher interested in cultural heritage and manuscripts who published many a good work. After I got married, I was so broke that I decided to sell my library. I offered my collection to his children, who agreed to buy it. Among other things, I owned a thirty-seven-volume collection of the fatwas of Ibn Taymiyyah. Thinking I could trick him, I hid from him two volumes—the volume on Sufism and the one on manners—but he was a true expert, telling me, “the complete collection or nothing at all.” So I sold them to him and left, having accepted my fate.
Today, the tallest minaret of the Kaltawiyyah Mosque is gone, having fallen during what appears to have been an artillery exercise. The minaret of the Grand Mosque was blown up, demolished completely. As for the prophet’s footprint at the Karimiyyah Mosque, it’s gone now too, along with the old markets and the bookshops around Nasr Gate, all burned to the ground. The past is long gone. Nothing remains of that time save for some black marks from the fire here and there and a whiteness in the mind where once there were memories.